“Gareth Mulvenna has previously worked as a parliamentary researcher in the Northern Ireland Assembly and during the writing of ‘Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries’ he held a Visiting Research fellowship at Queen’s University Belfast School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy. Gareth was a member of History Hub Ulster for whom he carried out research on the historic Craigavon House in East Belfast. He is a committee member of Donegall Pass Social History Group and a trustee of the REACH (Renewing, Engaging and Advancing Community Hopes) Project which seeks to address socio-economic issues in loyalist working class areas of Greater Belfast and North Down.”
Biography, Liverpool University Press
Balaclava Street is very pleased to publish this interview with Dr Gareth Mulvenna, in which we discuss his forthcoming book, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries, due to be published 30th September by Liverpool University Press. TGAP, described by Ed Moloney as “a classic […] study of the emergence of the Tartan gangs of Belfast in the early 1970s”, is an in-depth and intimate exploration of the Tartan youth cult which thrived amongst young working-class Protestants during that period, and the journey many of those Tartans made, from street gangs, to involvement with the Red Hand Commando, Young Citizen Volunteers, Ulster Young Militants, and for some ultimately to the compounds of Long Kesh and Magilligan. I am grateful to Gareth for his cooperation and for taking the time to respond to these questions.
Full disclosure: the world of loyalism studies is small and those within it tend to know each other on some level. I have known Gareth for a few years now and he is a good friend. Nevertheless, I have tried here to be as objective as is reasonably possible.
Q) Why do you think it has taken so long for a work on the Tartans to appear?
I honestly don’t know. It’s a subject with which I have been interested for over 15 years. I still have a very basic ‘spider’ diagram saved in my e-mail containing ideas for a proposed piece on the Tartans which dates back to 2007.
To my mind the Tartan phenomenon is a perfect vehicle through which to explore and gain a better overall understanding of the emergence of militant loyalism in the early 1970s. You have the normal youth subcultural trends and rituals – football, violence, music and fashion. In early 1970s Belfast football in particular could hardly go untouched by the growing sectarian strife. It was the same in the 1920s Troubles when Belfast Celtic and Linfield played each other. The altercations between Linfield supporters and Catholic residents of Unity Flats in 1970 acted as a forewarning of what was to come. It is no surprise that many of these aggressive young lads were being watched by the emerging paramilitaries.
I think that when it comes to looking at Northern Ireland and the Troubles many people are firmly comfortable to disregard the seemingly small details – the minor twists and turns – which in actual fact help to explain many of the overarching narratives. I know that many people probably assume that the Tartans were superfluous, but it is my contention that they were at actually the vanguard of loyalist disaffection in 1971 and early 1972 before the paramilitaries emerged onto the streets in large numbers. Indeed, the book demonstrates that the Tartan were being debated with grave concern in Stormont during 1971.
Of course Desmond Bell and Richard Jenkins had written about the Tartans as part of youth culture and sectarianism in Northern Ireland, but there has been no rounded history. My book is far from being the definitive account of the gangs either, but it does clear some of the prevailing and influential myths and gives voice to the people who were there at the start.
Q) Loyalism is sometimes looked upon as something of an academic ghetto, and loyalist paramilitaries are not exactly well understood or highly regarded by society in general. How did those around you react to your decision to embark upon the book project?
I don’t know if I have told you this before, but I have certainly recounted it at a couple of seminars over the years to explain the way in which many academics view loyalism. In 2004, when I was embarking on my PhD, I was beginning to shave my head more regularly as I was losing my hair. I later learned from a friend that an American student had asked him whether I was ‘Combat 18’ because I ‘had a shaved head and studied loyalism.’ To paraphrase David Ervine – when you’re starting off on a bad wicket like that, the future can look bleak.
People try and subtract credibility from your research and attempt to de-legitimise it in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. I’ll give you three examples of the latter, all involving a former friend who is also from a Catholic background. 1) Years ago I while I was doing the PhD I often used to wear a sort of broad-lapelled leather jacket on nights out. Every night without fail – until I dumped the jacket in a charity shop – this friend would gulder that ‘Here’s Lenny Murphy with his leather jacket!! Are you going to kill any taigs tonight Lenny?’ 2) Someone posted a photo on Facebook of me enjoying a drink at a wedding – underneath the photo this same person wrote ‘Dr Mulvenna giving one of his ‘after-dinner’ speeches – “…and then they cut off his willy…” is the sort of thing you would say.’ 3) Anytime I would talk about my research it was ‘hilarious’ to bring up the ‘Nazi priest’ episode of Father Ted: ‘Do you not have anything from the Allies side?’ Ad infinitum.
Of course, when I posted your review of the ACT ‘The Fallen and the Brave’ exhibition on Facebook ‘without critical comment’ the ‘jocular’ tone turned accusatory. I was labelled (despite not even writing the review) as an apologist for the UVF. That whole episode hurt initially until I realised that the larger number of people supported me. That’s a toxic friendship, but it is also representative of the way many people constantly pick away at your credibility. It was obvious that this person had contempt not only for loyalism, but also my interest in it.
Think back to the comments – particularly the ‘comic’ invocation of Lenny Murphy – and see who is being insensitive to the innocent victims of loyalist violence. Certainly not me.
Aside from my negative personal experiences outlined above it is exciting to see excellent postgraduate studies of loyalism emerging. Connal Parr, Dave Magee, Joanna Felo, Sophie Long and Sean Brennan have all written dynamic new theses on aspects of loyalism and its multi-faceted narratives. Moreover, they are wholly engaged with the loyalist community and seek to find ways forward in the spirit of collaboration. The future is certainly bright and I am hopeful that loyalism will continue to be the subject of credible, empathetic and fair-minded research.
Q) There are some who would argue that the Tartans were merely a lumpen, sectarian street cult devoid of political thinking, undeserving of analysis. What would your response to this be?
Well, that’s inevitable, particularly in Northern Ireland. However, on an academic level I would first direct those people to seminal works on subcultural working-class conflict such as The Violent Gang by Lewis Yablonsky (1962) or earlier works such as The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (1927) by the appropriately named Frederic Thrasher. Away from New York in the 1950s and Chicago in the 1920s ‘James Patrick’ produced what I feel is the definitive work on British youth gangs in his A Glasgow Gang Observed (1973). More recently Andrew Davies (University of Liverpool) has produced authoritative popular academic accounts of violent gangs in Manchester and Glasgow; the latter of course including the notorious ‘Billy Boys’ led by Billy Fullerton.
Closer to home, and directly influential on my own research, Desmond Bell’s Acts of Union and Richard Jenkins’s publications based on his time as a youth and community worker in 1970s Rathcoole are important works. Both Bell and Jenkins – by speaking to the young people involved – understood the forceful influence of the Tartan subculture on militant loyalism in the maelstrom of deindustrialisation and sectarian conflict.
Of course the Tartans were lumpen and sectarian, like many of the young people at the time and even today, but the important thing is that the book brings into focus the manner in which the Tartan gangs provided willing recruits for paramilitary organisations. One thing that came through sharply in the research – certainly in relation to the UVF/RHC/YCV – no one was bullied or coerced into joining these organisations. More to the point, older men did not necessarily prey on young and vulnerable minds. Tartans who joined organisations such as the UVF, YCV and RHC were eager recruits to the loyalist paramilitaries; and would in fact play a crucial role in shaping the violent reputation of such groupings in the early to mid-1970s.
Q) How smoothly – or not – did the research process for TGAP go? Did you encounter any resistance or institutional obstinacy from officialdom? There is the well-known “snowball effect”, where existing subjects/sources bring friends and acquaintances into contact with the researcher – did Belfast’s small size work to your advantage here?
As I have noted in the acknowledgments section of the book, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr William Mitchell, the co-ordinator of Action for Community Transformation (ACT) initiative. William is a former YCV ‘young prisoner’ and NCO in Long Kesh. Since about 2008 Tony Novosel had constantly advised me to make contact with William, but as I finished the PhD and moved into a job with the Northern Ireland Assembly I had to largely leave my active research behind in order to remain neutral. In the summer of 2012 when I was out of work I attended a Féile an Phobail event, ‘Voices Behind the Wire: The Loyalist Prison Experience’ which was staged by ACT in St Marys Training College on the Falls Road. It was an amazing event and really reinvigorated my appetite to make some contacts and do some more research. William read from his PhD thesis (‘”Eighteen and half years old – ordinary young men, extraordinary times”: a biographical study into the temporal life-histories of former Loyalist paramilitaries in the Ulster Volunteer Force and its associated groups’) Billy Hutchinson also spoke as did Beef Campbell and Tony Novosel himself. There were also short performances of a play and two poems by Robert Niblock – more of whom in a bit.
I approached William at the ACT event and he generously took a lot of time out of his busy schedule to meet with me throughout late 2012 and early 2013 to discuss possible ways of collaborating. Sadly, those collaborative ideas didn’t come to pass, but William was very decent and he put the ‘snowball effect’ you describe in motion.
He put me in touch with Clarke Frampton, uncle of the boxer Carl ‘The Jackal’ Frampton. Clarke had been a youth club worker in Rathcoole in the early 1970s. He put me in touch with Bo Kerr, an original Rathcoole Kai member and a founder member of the Monkstown YCV Flute Band which was formed in 1974 and continues to perform to this very day.
The connections gained real momentum when William introduced me to Robert Niblock. ‘Beano’ as he is more often referred to was writing his second full play – about the Tartan gangs! Absolutely perfect as you can imagine. Although he is a Derby County supporter and I a Nottingham Forest supporter we got on well during our initial conversations. I had actually been to the Spectrum Centre in 2009 to watch Beano’s first play, A Reason to Believe, which despite some technical hitches on the night, was an impressive performance. Given that he was preparing to finish off a draft of ‘Tartan’ when we first met up it will come as no surprise that football aside we had plenty to talk about from the outset.
Beano was and continues to be enthusiastic about my work. He was constantly trying to get old Tartan members to talk to me, advocating my project. To explain – the project then wasn’t intended to be a book, but more of an idea for a journal article.
After knowing Beano for about a year and I suppose establishing trust he put out feelers with a couple of leading Shankill Red Hand men from the early days. Beano is a former RHC from East Belfast and joined the organisation in July 1972. I think even he was slightly surprised when they agreed to be interviewed by me.
These early conversations with those former RHC members – Ronnie ‘Flint’ McCullough and Jim Tipping – took the research on a slightly different but incredibly significant tangent which eventually led to me deciding to approach a publisher about the possibility of writing a book.
This was not easy for me to do, and I’ll explain why.
I had struggled to find an academic job since finishing my PhD in early 2009 and in the middle of this depressing series of rejections I had a terrible experience with a popular Irish academic publisher in 2010. I gained some confidence and approached the publisher about turning my thesis into a book. At the start the commissioning editor was very interested and asked me to send two sample chapters. I did this and one of the peer reviews which came back – in fact the only one – gave me a lot to ponder in terms of additional content. I was a bit irked when the reviewer stated ‘I am not convinced that 1971 is the crucial year he makes it out to be’, but when the commissioning editor asked me to subsequently send her my entire thesis for a reader to look at in full, which I did, I felt the game was on. I never heard back from her. I e-mailed and didn’t get any response. To say I was gutted would be an understatement; my thesis was in the ether and I felt like my research was complete rubbish.
Fast forward to 2014 and after talking to some of the former Tartans, people like Billy Hutchinson and those former RHC members I began to see a potentially exciting book forming in my head. I approached my friend F. Stuart Ross who had had his excellent Smashing H-Block published by Liverpool University Press in 2010. I still recall seeing his book in Eason in Belfast and thinking that if I ever got the opportunity to write a book about Northern Ireland I would like it to be produced to the high standard that Stuart’s had been. Fortunately, Stuart kindly allowed me to view his successful book proposal shortly after I initially contacted LUP. That framework and the desire I put into my proposal turned out, to my surprise, to be a success at the first attempt. LUP and Alison Welsby in particular have been excellent since day one. Alison regards your project as special and takes the care to work alongside your vision for what the book will look like.
Sadly, there was also a lot of resistance from officialdom in the form of trying to get FOI requests processed by the Department of Justice. To give you an example, I put in requests for coroner’s inquest reports and Belfast City Commission court files relating to John McKeague and Stevie McCrea. That was in March 2014 and I only received them in March 2016. By that stage they were completely useless for the book, but they will be useful in the future I am sure. As for intelligence reports – goodness knows what the future holds for historians in trying to access those now that Boris Johnson is Foreign Secretary!
I found the research to extremely rewarding. It was sort of a busman’s holiday really – as a project like this should be, it should be something you enjoy and find stimulating.
There were maybe only a couple of people who didn’t want to engage and there were a few people who understandably didn’t want to commit their experiences to tape.
Yes, Belfast being so small does help and it doesn’t take long for your name to travel in circles such as those I was researching. You get recommended (or not) on the basis of your interactions with people. Like any walk of life! The one thing I can honestly say, hand on heart, is that no one pressed me to be uncritical. I remember The Guardian reviewing Peter Taylor’s Loyalists documentary in 1999 and the reviewer being astonished by the candour of the loyalist paramilitaries he interviewed. Eddie Kinner was one of the people he interviewed and reaffirmed this notion to me recently when he recalled Peter Taylor, who had a couple of years previously done the Provos documentary, being surprised at how honest the loyalists were about the sectarian nature of their attitudes during the early Troubles. Would a researcher studying the PIRA get the same sort of interview material? Probably not, especially with Sinn Fein in government. The Provos have always seemed more evasive and keen to stick to the ‘party line’ when recounting their history. It ultimately means you get a less colourful, less textured and less interesting story.
Q) Where did the Tartans fit in vis a vis the other contemporaneous youth cults in the UK, e.g. mods, skinheads, bootboys, Teds, etc.?
I think one of the most telling anecdotes in the book is Twister McQuiston describing his experience of guarding the annual Eleventh Night bonfire in Highfield. Winkie Rea, a few years older than McQuiston was one of the crowd who lived in the area – he was in a gang called the Orange Peel. Twister recollected that as they all sat around the fire beside the bonfire in the days leading up to the Eleventh, Winkie would read Richard Allen’s Skinhead and other pulp novels of the period. The lads loved these books as they told the stories of similar working-class youths in other parts of the UK. Northern Ireland was no different.
Twister’s Tartan gang in Highfield were known as the Ulster Bootboys, so there was an obvious affinity there with other youth subcultures.
The Teddy Boys did exist in Belfast during the 1950s and inevitably became demarcated along sectarian lines. There’s an episode in my book from I think 1958 which proves my point, but I’ll keep that one for the readers to see for themselves when the book is published.
I think it is important to remember that the Tartans were the latest in a long line of youth gangs in Belfast’s sectarian history. I also mention the ‘clans’ of Thomas Carnduff’s era c.1899-1904. These gangs, like the Tartans later on, were seen as ‘defenders’ of their streets.
A leading UVF member from the Shankill told me during a conversation about how he and his friends would fight with republican youths of the same age from Ardoyne, including Martin Meehan. This would have been in the early 1960s when he was about 15 or 16.
There is a lineage that runs in parallel with a wider social and popular culture experience. The main difference with the Tartans was the intensity of the violence in the early 1970s.
Q) What were the pop culture influences at work with the Tartans? Does the book finally squash the notion that their style was lifted from the Bay City Rollers?
I actually mentioned the apocryphal Bay City Rollers influence in a journal article that I wrote in 2012. However, as someone who has vociferously consumed pop culture since the age of 12 or so the Bay City Rollers connection didn’t sit easily with me, even as I wrote the sentence in the article. Pop culture is full of contradictions – that is the beauty of it of course; but at the back of my mind two things kept irritating me. One was the feeling that young, tough working-class teenage boys – would they really have been listening to saccharine rubbish like the Rollers?
The second and perhaps more prosaic historical obstacle to the Bay City Rollers being an influence on the origins of the Tartan gangs is that their major breakthrough Shang-A-Lang (co-written and co-produced by Phil Coulter by the way!!), wasn’t released until 1974. The popular cover of Bye Bye Baby – their other major hit – was released in March 1975.
When people come to read my book they’ll see that the authentic Tartan movement actually emerged as early as 1969 on the Shankill Road, in the form of the ‘Shankill Young Team’ who were dubbed ‘Shankill Young Tartan’ after a shoplifting spree in Glasgow which involved a young Frankie Curry.
Curry and his friends were Rangers and Linfield mad and as sectarian tensions as post-match interfaces such as Unity Flats grew in 1970 the ‘Tartan’ movement around the Shankill gained momentum.
I think it is fair to say that the Tartan subculture really gained momentum in the wake of the PIRA killing of the three young Royal Highland Fusiliers – the ‘Jocks’ – in March 1971. As mentioned by many of the interviewees for the book the three soldiers were seen as kith and kin and also Rangers supporters; Kevin Myers has suggested that the latter assumption quietly gave the Provos immense satisfaction.
To return to the direct substance of your question however, I would concede that of course during the UWC strike in 1974 there was an element of the Tartan that were visible and they did act as part of the formidable and intimidating loyalist ‘muscle.’ In a famous picture from the period featuring Glenn Barr and Bill Craig there is a young lad twirling his tartan scarf. He couldn’t be any more than 14. Shang-A-Lang was in the UK Top 10 during the Strike. Hence people become convinced that the Bay City Rollers were the direct influence, despite the fact that some of the original Tartans I interviewed from 1971-72 were in jail or organizations at this stage.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that many young loyalist men in 1970-71 were listening to Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Free. Of course, they also enjoyed the pop hits of the day.
Another major and significant pop culture influence on the young Tartans was Rod Stewart, who at the time was splitting his career between solo work and the Faces. In both he was often seen donning tartan scarves and he had a close association with some Rangers players also. As someone who young men saw as a ‘lad’, who better an idol than ‘Rod the Prod’?
Q) What of the minority community – was there a nationalist or Catholic counterpart to the Tartan phenomenon?
This proved to be a particularly frustrating aspect of the research. I know there were Catholic gangs – of course there were – and I had heard of the ‘Shamrock Tartan’ who were supposed to be based in the Divis Street area.
My partner’s aunt who is involved with Féile an Phobail was able to relay some minor information about the Nurks from her brother for which I was grateful. She also put me in touch with Danny Morrison who tried, through Twitter, to get information or possible interviewees. Nothing emerged, so sadly nothing was included in the book. Perhaps republicans are more reticent to deviate from the civil rights/armed struggle narrative, but as we know not many 14 year olds are politically aware. The Tartans were an organic progression of normal teenage concerns, but the politics of the day became entwined with youth subcultural rituals. This inevitably leant itself to the emerging move toward paramilitary violence, something loyalists will admit with candour.
It is something that I would be keen to revisit, perhaps with a blank canvas, as I am led to believe that some of the Catholic gangs did inevitably provide Na Fianna Éireann with recruits. Perhaps not to the same extent as the Tartans, but certainly their experience would be worth investigating.
Q) The formation and early history of the Red Hand Commando features heavily in the second half of the book. Given the misconceptions and errors which still prevail today regarding the group – it “didn’t really exist”, it was merely a UVF or UFF cover name, etc. – how do you think the book will change perceptions regarding the RHC?
Having been given a very unique opportunity to talk at length on many occasions to an original member of the group of youths who agreed to form the grouping which would become the RHC the first thing I sensed was perhaps a slight degree of frustration.
The nascent grouping which would become the RHC first met in Ronnie McCullough’s mother’s house in the Oldpark area of Belfast on 27 June 1970.
McCullough, then 18, and some of his friends – people who would go on to become prominent loyalists in North Belfast – had been marching in the Orange parades which were attacked by republicans on the Springfield and Crumlin Roads that day. Six Protestant civilians were killed by PIRA gunmen in North and East Belfast.
Without condoning the formation or activities of the RHC or any other paramilitary organisation, you can’t as a historian sit back and ignore a simple cause and effect process. These killings were seen by Protestants as blatantly provocative acts by republicans.
Not many people – including eminent historians of the conflict – know that on that day, 27 June, when six Protestants were killed in events directly related to that photograph, a group of young men met in a house and debated what they should do in reaction. They decided like so many other young working-class Catholics and Protestants at that time that taking up arms would be the best response.
I did get unique access to that early RHC story – something I had not anticipated – so the book became slightly more defined by the relationship between the RHC and the Woodstock Tartan. That dynamic cuts through the book, but it didn’t side-track me too much. When you get the chance to include a story like that you can’t put it off, and it is a huge element of part of the Tartan experience.
I hope that the book provides people with an understanding that not only did the RHC exist but that its tentative formation was a highly significant signpost on the dreadful descent into tit-for-tat violence which lay ahead.
The book contains interviews with some of these very early RHC members about training at the Bricklayers Arms and the collaboration with the Shankill Defence Association and John McKeague. Certainly I don’t think these have been included in any other historical account.
There is much more to be understood about the RHC and its role throughout the Troubles. To discount the organisation as a cover-name – to reduce it to that – is to completely misunderstand the early convulsions of the Troubles and the motivations of young loyalists at the time.
In essence I hope the book brings the RHC story – or at least the early part – to the forefront of the loyalist paramilitary narrative where I think it belongs.
Q) Even though they were responsible for carrying out much of the UVF violence of the early and mid-70s, the YCV have typically been lumped in with their parent body in previous works on the subject. What has your research revealed in terms of the nature of the YCV – and perhaps paramilitary youth wings in general – and its relationship with the adult UVF?
I suppose I don’t want to give away too much before the book is published but I think people will be surprised by a couple of the events relating to the YCV that detailed in the book, particularly its role in perhaps exacerbating the UVF/UDA feud in the mid-1970s. Also, if you look at Eddie Kinner’s contribution regarding his recruitment to the YCV, I think he has admitted that over time his understanding of why he was picked has changed. That is something that came up in our conversations and it directly relates back to the Tartan of which he was a member when he joined the YCV. Interviewing people at this stage of their life has given them the chance to reflect upon their previous reflections even!
Probably the one thing that struck me, because I was carrying out these interviews when I was aged 32 to 34, was just how young some of the leading YCV figures were. When you read material in your teens and early 20s it doesn’t really strike you as being odd but when you become old enough to see that these were very young lads it underlines how high passions were running in the early 1970s.
I think it is also important to remember that the YCV was the UVF’s youth battalion, rather than a youth wing as it were. If you look at the calls for members in 1974 it is described as a cadet force for young men and women. The call for young women is significant and is something which needs more exploration in terms of the UVF/YCV and RHC.
The YCV had a violent reputation but it also maybe gave the UVF a chance to see who could make the ‘step up’ to the organisation. There was probably a degree of autonomy in many of their operations, but many of the major bombings etc. such as the Rose & Crown in 1974 would have been ratified by the brigade staff.
Certainly the YCV of 1972 was vastly different to its forebear organisation of 1912 which was a civic-minded, non-sectarian and mainly middle-class group.
I think there is much more to be written about paramilitary youth groupings such as the YCV and Na Fianna Éireann. Again, time is of the essence!!
Q) Given the knowledge you now have of the YCV, UVF, and RHC during the poorly-understood period of the 1970s, has this changed your opinion or perspective on certain prior works within the genre, for better or worse? No names necessary!
First of all, I still think that academics have been at the forefront of writing the best accounts of paramilitary loyalism despite the unpopularity of the field in the academy. Richard Reed’s recent book Paramilitary Loyalism: Identity and Change (Manchester, 2015) is a brilliant sociological study of the paramilitaries. Pete Shirlow’s The End of Ulster Loyalism? (Manchester, 2012) was a timely look at loyalist conflict transformation initiatives framed in a historical context. Steve Bruce of course led the way back in 1992 with The Red Hand (Oxford) – a book which initially irked me due to its style, but with which I have reconciled myself the older I have got.
The journalistic accounts of the UVF are generally informative and snappy. You can’t doubt the accessible nature of Cusack and McDonald’s UVF – an excellent account of the organisation from Home Rule Crisis to 2007’s statement of intent. These guys have forged reputations through hard work and endeavour, but I still wonder why they so easily dismissed the RHC as an organisation ‘which did not exist’ when they are so clued in? David Boulton’s An Anatomy of Loyalist Rebellion is a breath-taking contemporary account of the rebirth of the UVF and he recognised the importance of people like John McKeague. Just an excellent book which told the story as it was happening. Of course this meant he got things wrong, but there’s no shame in that given that he was writing to the moment.
I still cannot fathom the popularity of Martin Dillon’s Shankill Butchers and Trigger Men. Well, of course I can – people love sensationalism, but those books are full of inaccuracies which are simply unforgivable. People will of course keep buying the books and thus their view of the conflict here will be shaped largely by what Dillon has written.
Given the knowledge I now have, I think the assessments above are honest and fair.
Q) The men you interviewed are now approaching or already in their sixties and many have grandchildren of their own – how have their experiences changed them, and what perspective do they have looking back on their involvement?
It largely depends on who you speak to. Everyone is different. As I state in the acknowledgements, each of them to a man did not want a repeat of what they had perpetrated on innocent people during the conflict.
Beano is a good example of how someone who was involved in the violence of that period can summon and channel their experience through art to reassess and question what exactly happened in the early 1970s and to explore what motivated him at that time. ‘Tartan’ for example certainly doesn’t glamorise violence, but it does show that those universal value systems of youth which more often than not emerge – comradeship, rivalry and naivety – played into the Tartan subculture and then the RHC and loyalist paramilitarism.
Some of the interviewees have been candid in openly questioning whether they would do what they did again if the conflict re-emerged. Their hope is that, no, they wouldn’t.
Many of my interviewees were former Compound 21 men so there is a progressive element coursing through their post-conviction DNA. There is Beano, who is an excellent writer. Others are involved in restorative justice, art and with Billy Hutchinson and the late David Ervine a dedication to a lasting political solution which respects all traditions.
One of the RHC men I interviewed at length is a member of Mensa. He has a copy of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in his living room cupboard. The book is signed by Gusty Spence and was given to the RHC when he was being released from Long Kesh. He explained to me that his loyalty was to the RHC values of retaining the British identity for Protestants in Northern Ireland, but he also underscored that by stating that loyalty to one’s family and one’s community was just as important a tenet of loyalism as loyalty to your country. Billy Mitchell had also mentioned this when I interviewed him in 2006 shortly before his untimely death.
Q) All sociological research, but particularly involving illegal groups, involves building relationships with your subjects in order to develop trust. In those circumstances is it possible to maintain one’s distance, or is true objectivity a chimera?
It’s interesting that you ask that because this very week my friend Sophie Long directed me to an excellent journal article from 1967 entitled Whose Side Are We On?, written by Howard S. Becker. I think basically the premise of the article is that no matter what sociological research you carry out you are damned to be seen to be taking a side, so rather than have an existential crisis over this you have to decide which side you are on. He concludes by saying ‘We take sides as our personal and political commitments dictate, use our theoretical and technical resources to avoid the distortions that might introduce into our work, limit our conclusions carefully, recognize the hierarchy of credibility for what it is, and field as best we can the accusations and doubts that will surely be our fate.’
Those accusations and doubts are constant when you are researching loyalism. Richard Reed explained this in an article entitled Researching Sensitive Subjects about his own research on loyalism: ‘…I encountered resistance from a small number of peers who were unwilling to accept complexities or nuances to the academic record of loyalism…I was perplexed to find that there is still a tendency within some quarters to dismiss the possibility of nuance in loyalism.’ He goes on to explain that he was accused of endorsing loyalist violence by not being critical enough. However, he also observed that many of the people he interviewed had been interviewed before by academics who parachuted in, got their information and then never communicated back the findings! That is morally and ethically reprehensible because it affects the opportunities for other researchers who come along subsequently.
Researching the contemporary history of Northern Ireland inevitably brings home to you the intimacy of the place. Belfast sometimes feels like a large village rather than a city. One former YCV member I interviewed for the book is my best friend’s uncle, another is a former boss of mine and another was responsible for an explosion in which my uncle’s father had his leg blown off. All three had particular stories to tell, with the former being a particularly significant member from shortly after its inception in 1972.
Do you simply ignore these people and their stories to keep things objective? Of course not. You collaborate with them on their contribution to the book but you make it clear from the outset that you don’t condone their actions. How could I condone the bombing of a pub where my uncle’s father – a bookmaker with no political or paramilitary connections – was drinking? I know the effect that his injury had on my uncle. The person responsible knows all of this because I declared my hand when we first met. You can either decide to be bitter or you can try and understand and learn what would make a teenager do something like that.
It is a moral quandary though. Compared to many other people my family came through the Troubles relatively unscathed; but remember – the majority of people I interviewed would at one time have had little compunction about killing my father for example, just because he was a Catholic living in the Cliftonville Road area in the mid-1970s.
Some people have criticised my attempt to understand, stating that I suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. That was a comment posted in response to an article I had published in The Guardian a few years ago.
So, to return to Becker’s thesis – of course you have to empathise with your research ‘subjects’ to some degree, otherwise why would you bother doing the research in the first place?
Q) After three or four years of research there must be a considerable amount of material that didn’t make it into the book. Do you intend to follow up TGAP with another work on loyalism?
You’re absolutely right. There is a lot of material left over – hours of interviews, draft chapters, newspaper articles, newssheets (I have around 500 photographs of Loyalist News!) and of course there are ongoing FOI requests for particular Troubles-related files, some of which I have and some of which I am awaiting a response on. That could all constitute the basis for further writing, but I don’t necessarily think that the information would constitute another book. I think the blog, with permission of interviewees, may be one avenue to publish ‘extras’ that didn’t make the book due to word limits and so forth.
Sometimes it can be perilous to talk too publicly about your research ideas as they often have a habit of appearing elsewhere! However, I would like to follow up the book with something else, but it has to be the right project. I don’t want to start churning books out for the sake of it. Without wanting to be too sentimental, I have a family to think about now and the most important thing is to put food on the table. The book certainly isn’t going to make me rich, but even if I didn’t get a penny from it I would still be proud of it.
Broadly speaking however, I think the RHC story deserves to be told on its own terms, but look at the important people who have died in recent years – Plum, John McAllister – to name just a couple from the Shankill. Then of course there is the controversy over Winkie Rea’s contribution to the Boston College Project. There are other people who I know for a fact won’t speak, even off the record. Ultimately you have to respect that and move on, but people are getting older and stories will disappear.
At the end of the book, in the ‘Afterword’, I hope I have mirrored the generosity shown by Tony Novosel who after completing his seminal study of political loyalism, encouraged younger researchers such as myself to carry out further work on loyalism. Ultimately my book is not a definitive account, as I have previously stated, but hopefully it has contributed something to the ongoing canon of work on loyalism – whether it be a clearer look at the formation and early history of the RHC, or simply giving voice to the experiences of former Tartan gang members as I mentioned earlier.
Q) On the subject of the ongoing debacle surrounding the Belfast Project and the PSNI’s pursuit of the Winkie Rea tapes, have you noticed increased reticence or caution on the part of participants or would-be participants as a result?
Winkie had actually agreed to speak to me for the book and I had chatted with him briefly to that effect after Plum’s book launch in Crumlin Road Gaol in October 2014. For obvious reasons that never came to pass as Winkie’s potentially controversial contribution to the ‘Belfast Project’ came to the fore a few months later.
I do think that there seems to be an agenda whereby those who can be sacrificed are sacrificed and those who are too important to the so-called ‘peace process’ are given a pass.
There is a need to consider the victims and families of victims in all of this. However, does jailing a man in his late 50s or 60s for two years really provide justice? Does it aid the normalisation of society here?
I think any reticence that exists will only increase. Thankfully I got trust established before the drawbridge came up, so I’m hopeful of being able to carry out further research on that basis.
Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries will be published 30th September 2016, priced £16.99 paperback/£75.00 hardback. Pre-order a copy by clicking here. Until the 16th July, use the code “SUMMER50” to receive 50% off.